Friday, June 17, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Saints as Role Models

We are often recommended to look to the Saints as role models.  But, if you're like me, this can be sometimes encouraging and sometimes discouraging.  The Saints live such radical lives and accomplish such amazing things, and I compare their lives to mine and find my own life to seem pretty mundane and ineffective by comparison.  The Saints always seem to respond to every situation with such perfect wisdom, charity, good humor, patience, etc.  It's hard to imagine them sometimes being too grumpy, complaining too much, getting impatient, being distracted, and having all the temptations and difficulties I face in my daily life.

Of course, this isn't really the case.  My viewpoint is skewed, because I am me, and I am not them.  I have to live with myself every second of every day and witness all my internal thoughts, feelings, temptations, and minute actions.  All I see of the Saints, for the most part, are the sorts of activities which made them to be recognized as Saints in the first place, and of course those activities are the ones that demonstrate observable and remarkable holiness.  In some ways, then, we must remember when we compare ourselves to the great biblical, historical, and canonized Saints of the past, we are comparing apples and oranges.

Of course, we do hear about the failures and weaknesses of Saints as well sometimes.  We can think of Elijah's depression, even after his victory over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19).  We can think of St. Nicholas losing patience and punching the heretic Arius.  Or we can think of how St. Teresa of Avila was plagued with distractions during prayer.  We can also remember those Saints who didn't do astonishing things in their lives but whose Christian life was more "ordinary," like St. Monica, who is famous for simply loving her son (St. Augustine) and praying ceaselessly for his conversion.  (Or even kind-of weird Saints who seem to be famous mostly for being weird, like St. Joseph of Cupertino.)

But it is true, nonetheless, that most of the Saints we hear about seem to have lived extraordinary lives.  Most of us, however, will not live extraordinary lives (at least not to that extent), for if everyone lived extraordinary lives, no lives would be extraordinary.  As I heard someone say on the radio once a number of years ago, "If everybody was somebody then nobody would be anybody."

The VeggieTales version of the story of St. Patrick put it well:

Narrator:  Maewyn Succat [Patrick] grew up as a normal little boy.  Maewyn went to school.  He played.  He went to church.  And he was kidnapped by pirates. 
Patrick:  Wait, that's not normal. 
Narrator:  If you were too normal, you would not have a holiday named after you. 
Patrick:  Good point.

So we have to keep in mind that while the Saints are indeed role models, they are also special in a way that not all of us can be or will be.  Otherwise, there would be no point to the whole process of canonization.  A helpful way to think of it is this, I think:  What the Saints often do in an extraordinary way, the rest of us saints should do in an ordinary way.  I may not convert an entire nation to Christianity and get a feast day named after me, but I can communicate the gospel to my friends and neighbors.  I may not found a religious order, but I can be a witness to my friends and my family and help them to live better Christian lives.  I may not get martyred for the faith, but I can live the faith faithfully day in and day out in my more ordinary callings.

This partly explains, by the way, I think, why so many of the Saints have been priests, monks, or nuns, whereas most of us aren't.  These kinds of people are called to live out the evangelical counsels of Christ in a special way, and in a way that can often be more visible and, in a sense, tangible.  (For those of you who don't know what the "evangelical counsels" refers to, see here.)  We are all called to live out the spirit of the evangelical counsels, but those who are called to the religious life are called to live out that spirit in more dramatic ways.  We are all called, for example, to use all that we have for God's service and to love God above all things; but many religious express this by actually taking a vow to refrain from owning property.  We are all called to put God before all human ties, but some in the religious life express this by making a vow of celibacy.  As St. Paul suggested in 1 Corinthians 7, those who give up some of the good things of this world, like marriage, to focus more directly and in a full-time way on God's service have less "divided interests" and so may, in some ways, accomplish more.  And those who accomplish more in this sense (such as by founding a religious order or becoming a missionary to a bunch of cannibals) are living in such a way as to have their holiness and commitment to God more on display (though that is not, of course, their intention), and so are more likely to be noticed for Sainthood.  Whereas, say, the housewife who spends her days taking care of her children, cooking meals, cleaning the house, and other such more "mundane" sorts of activities, is far less likely to be put on the path to canonization.  But, as St. Francis de Sales reminds us, it doesn't mean that such people are any less holy:

It is an error, or rather a heresy, to say devotion is incompatible with the life of a soldier, a tradesman, a prince, or a married woman.... It has happened that many have lost perfection in the desert who had preserved it in the world. 

Also, such "mundane" callings are, of course, just as necessary as the more "extraordinary" callings, in some ways even more so.  However useful it may be, the world can usually survive without the founding of a new religious order.  But the world would not survive very long without mothers willing to take care of their children!

So, in short, we should not be discouraged if we do not seem to live such extraordinary lives as the Saints whose statues we honor in our churches.  In a sense, this is not surprising, since these are the all-stars, so to speak, of the faith.  We can't all be first chair in the violin section or valedictorian of our class, and that is perfectly fine.  Some people have callings, interests, and talents that lead them to such positions, while others have other callings, interests, and talents leading them elsewhere.  They may not be noticed as much, but they are no less important.  If we all devoted our lives to filling roles that tend to get most noticed for canonization, many of us would be neglecting other valid and crucial callings and would leave our families, the Church, and the world impoverished.  And we only see what history has remembered of these Saints, whereas we see our own lives in all their details, good and bad.  But, in another way, these Saints are our role models, because, although they often do it in more dramatic or less ordinary ways, they show us how to live a life devoted to love to God and to our neighbor that we all can and should, by God's grace, strive to emulate.

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